About Me

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I am a business professional who has been working in both the profit and non-profit industry for over 30 years. I have been doing improv for 28 years and still love it every chance I get to do it. I have been married for over 25 years to the same awesome guy and have two really amazing kids.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Board of Detractors

As someone who has worked in nonprofits since the late 1980’s– I’ve seen one issue rear its ugly head more times than I can count.  The issue, which I’m sure has been around since The Hospital of St. Cross was established in Britain in 1136, is poor board recruitment, training and management.  Granted the monks back in the 1100’s were probably just figuring how to run one of the first recorded charities – but I’m sure there was at least one blow hard that insisted that they were right and dismissed everyone else’s ideas to make sure their agenda was the one that prevailed.  Sound familiar?  You don’t have to work in a nonprofit to be exposed to that sort of bombast, but the very nature of charities sometimes attracts people who attach themselves to organizations for all the wrong reasons.
Charities, just like a regular corporation, are created because someone saw a need that they believed was not being addressed.  Unlike a traditional industry whose mission it is to provide a product or service that can be sold with profits that are distributed to investors, non-profits have a social entrepreneurial spirit that gives back to the community that it serves. The money raised is invested into the programs that it offers, and it is dependent on volunteers, donors, grants and corporate contributions to keep the doors open. The people starting the organization generally do it because their passion is based in something that affected them personally (for instance a mother whose child with autism needs additional resources to get through school).  In order to prevent someone else from experiencing the same dilemma, they create an organization they hope will help alleviate that situation. 

Once the mission of the charity is established, the next step is to create a board of directors.  In some states it can be as small as three people who are usually the founding members of the group.  The goal is then to increase the number board members who can help raise the profile of the organization. But first they need to have a good understanding of the definition of a functioning board.

According to the National Council on Nonprofits, board members are the fiduciaries who steer the organization towards a sustainable future by adopting sound, ethical, and legal governance and financial management policies, as well as by making sure the nonprofit has adequate resources to advance its mission.

Developing a competent Board of Directors is vital to any non-profit and it can help make or break how well an organization is able meet its mission and raise money. Yet, most fledgling non-profits get caught in the “We’re on a mission to do good and we’ll take anyone because we’re desperate!”  In the history of the world, pleading for help in extreme desperation does not usually lead to a healthy outcome unless you are in a Marvel movie.  Even then, the bad guy will probably hear your scream before the good guy can jump in and save the day.  While it makes for great cinema, it wreaks nothing but havoc on an organization.   

Sometimes nonprofits will allow board members to serve concurrent terms to insure the longevity of the organization. This approach has its pros and cons.  On the pro side – you have people on the board with a strong institutional memory that the staff and volunteers can lean on for advice. They have also devoted years to helping insure the longevity of the organization. On the down side, I have seen board members who have served for over 20 years and have no intention of leaving their fiefdom. That sort of complacency often leads to the dreaded mantra of “This is how we’ve always done it and I don’t see any reason to change.”  When new staff or board members try to offer a different perspective, they are rebuffed by the long-term leadership.  A board’s inability to allow different ideas or technologies can leave a nonprofit vulnerable in a competitive market.  Unfortunately, many times the reality is that the nice people who work and volunteer at non-profits generally have a hard time dealing with combative personalities – they are there to do good after all.  The boorish behavior is too often allowed to continue for years which just emboldens the perpetrator.  

The very nature of an honorable cause can bring around people who know an easy mark when they see one.  That’s why I tell people who work at nonprofits to be very leery of anyone who comes in, seems to have all the answers and then wants to take on a lot of responsibility with very little oversight.  It’s like the beginning of an abusive relationship – at first the person seems like an answer to a prayer and is charming and willing to go above and beyond what is called for. But at some point, they start to become manipulative and controlling.  These individuals can cause fissures in an organization that can take a very long time to heal. Sometimes it’s predatory behavior and sometimes it’s just plain arrogance and willful ignorance – either way it can destroy the confidence that your staff and the greater community has in your organization.

          After working with organizations and boards for almost 30 years, I’ve seen my share of horror stories – here are my top three which go under the heading of “Don’t let this Happen to You!”

Cautionary Tale #1:

An arts group had managed to bring on board members from all over the community and wanted to make sure that its artists were represented.  One
actor showed an interest in serving on the board and had been a reliable performer.  It seemed like a natural match – the theatre had board members who represented the community and had the financial and legal skill set needed but it didn’t have an someone who could represent the performance side even though the Artistic Director was also on the board.  Things were going well at first until the actor brought up a play that he had always wanted to do.  The content was not keeping with the mission of the theatre and the play was voted down.  The actor kept pushing and the artistic director explained that it did not jive with the other plays that they were considering. 
The actor persisted to no avail and then shifted his tactic to get the board to remove the artistic director.  Luckily the board saw through his manipulation, but it took months to get him off the board and it damaged the cohesiveness of the group. 

Cautionary Tale #2

I was a fundraiser for a charity in the early 1990’s that included an emergency shelter for children who had to be removed from their homes because of abuse, abandonment and neglect.  If you know anything about child welfare, then you know it takes numerous reports and legal maneuvering to place a child outside their home. It’s a very traumatic process for everyone involved and is only done if there is no other alternative. The children are put in the shelter until they can be placed in a foster or group home.  There was a board member who gave a fair amount of money to the organization who loved to go down to the shelter and play with the kids.  That all seemed fine until one of the teachers started to feel uncomfortable with the attention that he would lavish on the children because he would insist that they sit on his lap.  One day, she noticed after one of the children jumped off his lap that he had what appeared to be an erection.  She was horrified and quickly had the children go with her. She informed the board member that the children needed to have dinner and that volunteer hours were over. 

She was not sure what she needed to do since she knew this person was an influential member of the board.  She informed her superior who informed the Executive Director.  The Executive Director had a meeting with the Chairman of the Board who at first refused to believe it because the accused was a pillar of the community and it was a very serious accusation.  They questioned the teacher and other staff members who admitted that they had seen it too but because he was a major donor and a board member, they didn’t know how to respond to it.   

The Executive Director and the Chairman of the Board called the board member in and told him the results of their investigation.  He denied it but resigned from the board and the case was turned over to law enforcement and the Department of Family Services.  New procedures and training were put in place to prevent this situation from ever happening again.  

The prior two stories show what can happen when you have someone who uses their influence to manipulate the people around them to try to further their agenda.  In the first story the actor was working out of sheer ego to get a play produced as his own star vehicle and when he didn’t get his way, he tried to remove what he saw as the obstacle – the Artistic Director. The second story had a much more nefarious tone in which you had someone using their social standing and financial contributions so he could victimize the children that the organization had pledged to protect. 

Cautionary tale #3

This last story shows how a lack of understanding of the true mission of the organization and the correct chain of command can lead to a huge public relations snafu that can take years to repair. 

I was the executive secretary at a child welfare agency that included foster care. Ideally, foster parents are trained to take care of the children in their stead with the idea that it will not be a permanent placement but a place that a child can reside outside an institutionalized setting while the state tries to facilitate reunification with their biological family. Sometimes the placements are made almost at birth if it’s determined that the child’s safety would be in peril if they went home with their parents who might have drug or alcohol addiction issues.

One of the foster care parents at this agency had nurtured a young girl
since she was an infant.  The parents were getting back on their feet and the state wanted to reunify the family.  The foster mother understandably had grown close to this young child who was two years old at this point and had let a few people at the agency know that she was interested in adoption.  She was told that unless there was a termination of parental rights by the state, that the goal for the family was always reunification. The foster mother had a hard time accepting this.  She didn’t want to help facilitate the supervised visits and made it difficult for the biological parents to meet with their daughter.

When it looked like the biological parents would receive custody of their daughter, the foster mother fled in the middle of the night with the young girl and left her husband and young son to contend with the press and legal fallout.  The fact that a foster parent decided to take such a drastic action was bad enough but the reaction from the Chairman of the Board of the organization was even worse.

She was a friend of the woman and called a press conference unbeknownst to the Executive Director to say that she completely supported what the fugitive foster mother was doing.  The Chairman stated that her friend was within her rights to protect the child by going into hiding.  This proclamation of support to a woman who was now herself a criminal went against everything that the organization stood for.  It also put several state welfare contracts in jeopardy which would have greatly reduced the services that the organization could offer and might subsequently cause staff lay-offs. None of this had crossed the Chairman’s mind while she was expressing her righteous indignation to the media.

A conference call was held with the board members and the Executive Director minus the Chairman. The decision was made to refute what the Chairman had said and explain that the organization supported the reunification of the family.  The woman and the child were found in the middle of the state (luckily, she had not crossed state line, or the legal ramifications would have been even greater).  The young girl was reunited with her biological parents and the foster mom ended up in a world of legal trouble. 

This last tale exposed a total lack of cohesiveness and communication on the part of the agency.  As a result, the chairman resigned from the board. A new communication and board policy was put in place in which only the Executive Director could speak to the media on behalf of the agency.  There were meetings with state agencies and foster parents to assure the affected parties that there would not be repeat of this debacle. It took years to rebuild the trust between the government entities and donors with the organization just because one person decided to go rogue.

“Those are some pretty frightening stories. How do I prevent that from happening to my organization?” you might ask.  It’s a matter of training and communicating to your board what is expected.  Here are a few suggestions on how to prevent a volunteer leadership implosion:
  • Develop a board handbook that each board member signs to make sure they understand their responsibilities and how to counter toxic behavior.  Have Board members attend an orientation where they can ask questions.  Make sure they meet one-on-one with the Executive Director and allow them to get to know senior management to keep the lines of communication open.
  • Always ask a potential board member to serve on a committee first.  If you start to see negative issues when they are on a committee, you can deal with them when they are not serving as a legal entity which has more gravity than just helping volunteer for an upcoming fundraiser.
  • Make sure you have liability insurance for board members and volunteers.  The three cautionary tales are a prime reason why you need coverage in case one of your board members goes way out of bounds and you are sued because of their misconduct.
·         Go with your gut instinct. In all three instances, board and staff members mentioned that they felt something was not quite right with the offending party but did not want to cast aspersions.  Their need to believe in the best in people made it easy for the perpetrators to manipulate the situation.  It’s slippery slope to maneuver but it’s vital if something just does not seem right to figure out why.
·            Do your due diligence.  It’s not enough for one or two people to vouch for someone – actually check with people they work with, and other community organizations they might volunteer for. You would do a background and reference check for a new staff member, use that same diligence with potential board member. 
·            If they are serving on more than two boards and they want to come on your board, insist that they serve on a committee.  Most of the time you can’t be heavily active on three boards without conflicts of interest or scheduling issues.  If they are not showing up for board meetings and you need their vote to pass a motion, it can really undermine what business the board is able to accomplish legally.

Bringing about positive change in the world by creating a nonprofit is the very definition of a noble cause. There is no better feeling at the end of the day then knowing that you made a difference in the lives of the people that you serve.  Safe guarding that mission from someone whose intentions are unscrupulous even if they seem magnanimous is one of the most difficult challenges that a non-profit can face.  The dysfunction that a rogue board detractor can cause sometimes takes years to recover from.  Recognizing and stopping malignant individuals is a vital skill to hone and one that might just determine the long-term sustainability of your organization.  You don’t need to be a monk from the 1100’s to understand that.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Harass is Not Two Words

I don’t remember exactly what I said to the assistant manager at the chain restaurant that I worked at when I was in my early 20’s as a waitress.  It might have been a smart or biting comment, but it didn’t warrant what came next.  He responded by slapping me on the ass – hard.   The sound of the smack could be heard in the dining room and he and I both looked at each other shocked.   For him, I think he was taken aback that it was so loud and that he had struck a staff member.  For me, it was the fact that someone had spanked me like a child, but it was not done with the parental oversight of trying to teach a young progeny right from wrong, it was done to silence me.   A couple of other staff members had seen it as well, so it was not going to be a “he said/she said” situation.   As far as jobs go, server positions were easy to come by in Miami so a threat of “You’ll never work in this town again!” was hollow. 
He ran away, trying to get as much distance between us as possible.  Rather than just take it, to my amazement, I stood up for myself.  As my left cheek tingled and stung from the force of impact I followed him and cornered him in the alcove where the servers rolled silverware when we didn’t have a party that would be seated there.   I looked him in the eye and said, “SUBMIT BALLS NOW!”  He looked scared – he was a young manager, and this was clearly out of expertise, but he got the message.   
“Hey Kelley, I’m sorry.  I’m not sure why I did that please – forgive me!” he begged thinking more of his job than currying my dispensation.  
“Don’t you ever lay a hand on any of the staff like that again or I swear to God I will go to Bruce,” I said referencing the area manager who would probably actually do something about it – the general manager – not so much. 
“Okay, I’m sorry, let me make it up to you – here’s a gift card for a free order of ‘Shrooms,” he offered as a quick settlement. 
“No thanks, keep it. But seriously, I don’t want you to ever touch the wait staff,” I said walking away with my rump still burning. 
When I got off my shift, I went into the back bathroom with another female server and asked if she could see anything.  We both looked and there was a red hand print still on my butt.  Now I had another witness who was ready to back me up if I ever needed it.  Luckily, I didn’t.  The Kiefer Sutherland look-alike never bothered the servers again and was later transferred.   In hindsight decades later, I probably should have reported him, but this was the early 90’s and who knows what would have happened - more than likely nothing and I would have been fired.
Fast forward to today, where claims against men, both famous and unknown seem to abound and are being taken seriously.    I thought the torrent would have started when the allegations against Bill Cosby came to light.  I had blogged then about my assault in college and received kind words of support, but it did not even approach the dam breaking after the Harvey Weinstein revelations.  Maybe because Weinstein had affected more women, maybe because it wasn’t TV’s lovable Cliff Huxtable who seemed a world away from terrible things that Cosby was accused of doing.   Weinstein was never part of our national conscience. He was not “Fat Albert”.  He never tried to teach us right from wrong.  When his crimes came to light – it was easier to start shining the light on all the rodents in Hollywood, politics and other industries. We are still watching them scatter like vermin to either deny the charges or in some cases come clean and admit what they have done.  What we’re seeing now are serious repercussions – long overdue and badly needed. 
But in these early days of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement there is confusion on what constitutes a one-time lapse in judgement vs. a pattern of bad or abusive behavior.   A company that has a clear sexual harassment policy and a way to report issues is going to be way ahead the ones that are just now figuring out how they are going to handle those accusations.   I’ve heard radio DJs wonder out loud if holding a door constitutes sexual harassment.  The answer is no – it’s just good manners and a woman who gets her nose out of joint about that needs to take a chill pill.  I’ve listened to young men worry that if they ask someone out and they say no does that mean harassment – again, not if you say thanks and move on.  
The Harvey Weinstein Effect has exposed countless men who use their positions to pressure women for favors and then deny it as per their lawyers or try to make into the women’s fault for consenting to meet them privately in their office or post work for dinner or coffee.   Many women are programmed to be people pleasers – so even if our internal instincts are screaming – “OH HELL NO!” many will take that private after hours closed door meeting and hope for the best.   
What all companies need to do now is review their procedures for
reporting abuse.  An incident report form needs to be developed and a confidential way to report infractions must be put in place.  Management needs to have a clear expectation of what is acceptable and what is unacceptable behavior and it needs to be a training that all employees– including executive staff and board members- should attend.   The last thing any company needs right now is even a hint of impropriety so sitting down and explaining the rules should be part of a regular training/new orientation program. Knowing your rights and how to report an issue to the proper chain of command is now a vital skill in the workplace.
Here are a few steps that might help if you are ever in a situation where you need to report abuse or are thinking of reporting an incident that happened in the past:

  • ·   If it is recent - report it immediately to the HR department.  If  you work for a small company and HR is the boss’ wife and he’s the perpetrator – then tell a friend. 
  • ·   Document everything that happened – date, time, place, what was said and anyone that could have witnessed it.   
  • ·   Save the report in several places so that it can’t be deleted.
  • ·   If you feel that you will not get any help from your company’s Human Resources department, contact the Employment Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and make a complaint.
  • ·   If you have something like Legal Shield, you can talk to an attorney who might be able to give you guidance on how to file a grievance or lawsuit if it comes to that.
  • ·   Check out these websites for more information on your employment rights and how to file a complaint - click here.
Thankfully for victims of sexual harassment and abuse, the tide is turning and there is no longer a stigma attached to speaking out.  Now if another server gets her butt slapped by a manager, she’ll be able to legally slap back. 

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Buttressing Your Security

Do you fear the Lord?” a donor asked me as he was dropping off some items for children at the foundation that I used to work for.   Normally, I would have just said “yes” and thanked him for his donation but this time it felt different - I was alone in the office and that line sounded like the type a serial killer says right before he strikes.  

I did say yes, but moved toward the desk of the receptionist  where she kept her pencils, pens and a pair of sharp scissors in a cup on her desk.  While the man continued to fill out his donation papers, I quietly took the scissors out of the cup and put them behind my back in the waistband of my slacks.  If I needed a weapon to ward off this potential Ted Bundy I had it nearby.  I smiled
and kept him talking until his had finished filling out his paperwork and told him how much the kids would appreciate the items he brought.  I also sized him up – he was no taller than me and probably in his 50s.  If I needed to act quickly, I would stab him in the eye which would immobilize him and give me time to run out into the hallway and call for help.

I was actually surprised at how calmly I was able to decide to use lethal force if necessary and was also kicking myself for leaving the door unlocked while everyone else was at lunch.   He mentioned that he had seen charities not give items to those in need and I assured him that the sick kids in our hospital would get the items he donated.  It explained his need to ask if I was a God fearing woman in case I decided to keep the new Game of Life and Barbie dolls that he was donating for myself. 

He handed me his paperwork and I walked him to the door thanking him again for his donation while my heart was pumping so hard I was pretty sure he could hear it.  I told him I would send a photo of us delivering the items.   Once he was out in the hallway, I locked the door and put a chair in front of it.   I put the scissors back, and sat down at the reception desk because my legs felt like they would give out from under me.  Thirty minutes later, my co-workers started to trickle back and were surprised not only that the door was locked but there was a chair blocking the door.  When I told them what happened we decided to have an impromptu staff meeting to develop a security policy.  From that day forward, the door was locked if even there were just two staff members present and we installed a doorbell to alert us if someone had arrived.  It was simple enough and added some peace of mind.

Fast forward to today and my current career at where I make cold calls on small businesses and walk into any number of security situations on any given day.  Over the last year, I have physically walked into over 1,200 small businesses and about 85% of the time I am often discouraged to completely appalled at the lack of security most places have for their staff.   I’ve walked into offices in which I stood there for five minutes, called out and said hello. I heard people in back but no one came to the front.   In the meantime, there were laptops, cell phones and purses in the front that could be easily taken while the staff was hanging out in the back.  With no cameras to be seen anywhere – a person could walk away with thousands of dollars of equipment in a briefcase virtually undetected which would probably include sensitive information about the business.  The other day I walked into an office with an open door and a photocopy of six credit cards on top of the desk - it would have been nothing for me to slip out with those numbers to use as I wished.  Worse, I’ve been in offices and announced myself only to have a lone woman walk-up startled that I had been standing there and she had no idea.   Not to overly alarm anyone, but as I learned - a lone staff member is very vulnerable if they are unaware of the potential dangers out there.  I was lucky that my “Fear the Lord” dude was harmless but others might not be so lucky.

For my own security, if no one comes to the front and I hear a person in the rear office, I NEVER walk back for a few reasons.  One reason is that depending on the work policies at that particular organization, if you startle someone and they have a gun they could shoot you in self-defense thinking you are a burglar.  Another reason is that as a woman, I could get jumped so I will either write down the name of the business or take a picture of the front door to remind me to call them later from the safety of my home.
Maybe my own sensitivity has been heightened by my personal experience  so I know that security is not something you screw around with.  It needs to be taken seriously for the sake of your staff and business.  The best part is that it can be done relatively inexpensively.

Here are some simple suggestions of how to protect you,  your employees and customers:
  • If you have the budget for a receptionist/administrative assistant, have them sit up front and set up a system of name badges for visitors.  Your visitors should sign-in and have the receptionist ask who they are there to visit.  They are the “gate-keepers” so give them a clear policy of how to guide guests to the people they need to see but train them to be able to anticipate an issue before it becomes a crisis – more on that in the next blog.
  • For really small businesses that do not depend on retail foot traffic, keep the door looked and install a doorbell or intercom system in which your guest has to announce themselves.  If you are expecting them, then send someone to the front to open the door, if not, ask them to leave their information in the front and someone will get back to them. 
  • If you can’t afford a dedicated receptionist and have the room - create a small receiving area with where a guest can walk in the front and call who they need to see – the door to the rest of the office should be locked and the person who is meeting with a guest can walk-up and let them into the rest of the office. 
  • At night, make sure that the parking lot is well lit and make sure that no one is left in the office alone.  The last two staff members working should use the buddy system to walk out to their cars.   Make a  policy that allows them to finish their work from home to prevent being the last person out the door after dark.  
     It's not about being paranoid, it’s about being safe.   99.99% of the time, you and your employees will not have an issue but just like preparations for a weather emergency, you need to plan in advance to help keep everyone out of harm’s way.  At the end of the day, having a boss who will protect their greatest  “asset” speaks volumes about your integrity and how much your value your staff. 

Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Fine Art of Failure

“Success requires passion, perseverance, emotional intelligence and the ability to understand the value of failure.” - John Haltiwanger, Elite Daily

I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles overcome while trying to succeed.”      - Booker T. Washington

A friend of mine recently mentioned an incident with a young intern who was told that their part of the project was not up to the level the team needed to make the proposal succeed.  The intern felt picked on, got defensive, angry and resorted to name calling.  My friend took them aside and tried to reason that it was not personal and in fact there were positive aspects in what they had turned in -  but that they needed to try a little harder.   He suggested that shadowing with others in the group who had more experience might help them improve how to put the proposal together.  This young person apparently had never faced any real criticism and became extremely upset.  The intern who had a lot of promise decided to quit that day rather than face the fact that they had not wildly succeeded beyond all expectations the first time at bat.   

We both were willing to excuse it as some youthful overconfidence when I stumbled across a Psychology Today article called “Declining Student Resilience: A Serious Problem for Colleges” by Dr. Peter Gray.   It spoke to the fact many students are starting college without basic life skills to help them handle adversity or even (gasp!) failure.  It’s a result of controlling parents who either push their kids too hard to be successful or refuse to see their own child’s foibles and blame everyone in sight for their own parenting misdeeds.  

These well meaning parents have been orbiting their children for years to prevent any adversity including dealing with disappointments or even simple life challenges to darken their child’s door. One university reported that emergency calls for counseling had doubled over even the simplest disagreements such as a student being called at bitch by her roommate or dealing with finances for the first time.  Two other students needed counseling after they called the police when they spotted a mouse in their off-campus apartment.  The officer was kind enough to set a mouse trap for the errant rodent.  

I've worked with many Millennials and three out of four times, I find them to be hard working, conscientious and have high emotional intelligence.  But the other 25% have a really heard time taking direction, listening to differing opinions and completing their projects within the specifications. When you offer feedback that is not glowing they become defensive and extremely hard to work with.   You wonder how they can fall apart over a comment like "Hey, on the next set of reports, could you make the copies a little darker?"  

Our society is now reaping the effects of making sure our children have every advantage for some it's not the path to success those parents had expected. 
In their quest to create successful children, these well-meaning parents have over scheduled to the point their children have little down time to examine who they are because each block of time is devoted to baseball, football, soccer, ballet, piano, etc. They are expected to exceed and when they don’t - it’s not because they might lack the drive or talent but it’s because the coach, the teacher or the director is not giving them a fair shake.  Worse, some parents are doing their children’s homework to keep their grades up while they are rushing from one activity to another.  The reality is that is that facade will crack - the test grades will prove that the brilliant insights these kids have at home for some reason do not transfer to the classroom.  

These kids grow-up to feel unworthy at the dawn of any adversity and the rate of depression among young adults is at an all time high.  A  2012 Healthline article written by Michael Kerr found that:
  • 1 out of every 4 college students suffers from some form of mental illness, including depression
  • 44% of American college students report having symptoms of depression
  • 75% of college students do not seek help for mental health problems
These statistics keep some college professors from giving bad grades for fear of causing emotional distress that can lead to serious psychosis.  As a result, colleges lower their standards because they are afraid of lawsuits resulting from nervous breakdowns or suicides.  Of course, this is not news to teachers who have been seeing this trend for years and now those overly protected children are off to college no more able to handle things then when they were in the sixth grade.   

Which is why we need to sit our kids down and tell them it’s okay to fail.  Heck, a good manager will tell their staff to try something new even if it doesn't always work out - hell it might take many times at bat to even make contact with the ball.  It's okay - that's life and not everything you try to do is going to go perfectly the first time or the sixth time or the 100th time.   It might even be good to abandon the whole concept of perfect - it just doesn’t exist.

Sorry you A-type personalities, you can try for excellence, you can try to go beyond the parameters of the project but it will never, ever be perfect - so let yourself and your kids off the hook.  Studies have shown that many successful CEOs and American Presidents were actually C students who could see the big picture rather fixating on small details that just slowed them down.   Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates were C students as were John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and George Bush Sr. and Jr.  

One of my colleagues told me recently that her son was asked to do a paper on a historical figure and one of the paragraphs had to be a time that person faced adversity or failure.   That is an important lesson for kids to absorb - that greatness is not achieved overnight and it can be a lifelong process.  Here’s a short list of great people who failed many times before they finally got it right:
  • Thomas Edison tried 1,000 lights prototypes before he finally was successful creating the light bulb. 
  • Albert Einstein was expelled from school and refused admittance to Zurich Polytechnic School. 
  • Oprah Winfrey was fired from her job as a TV reported because she was “unfit for TV.”
  • Dr. Seuss’ first book To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street was rejected 27 different times. 
  • Steven Spielberg was rejected by the University of Southern California film school three times.  
  • Elvis Presley was fired after one show at the Grand Old Opry and told to go back to driving a truck. 
  • Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team but it didn’t stop him
    from pursuing what he loved doing. "I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot, and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."
Success takes risk and risk comes with failure.  I’ve had so many projects bomb or never come together like I thought they would.   But I learn so much more from the stuff that tanks than I do from the things that are a success and that trail and error makes the things that succeed that much sweeter.  Failure helps me figure out what my clients want by eliminating the parts that have failed in the past.  It helps me figure out what will work in the future and gives me the strength to take those chances.   That's the lesson we need to teach our young people and maybe when faced with adversity - they'll embrace it as just one more brick on their own road to success. 

Sunday, May 7, 2017

A Cheeky Concept - The Power of Yes And....

I was walking in the park the other day when I happened across a golden retriever who was having the best time in the stream.   She was trying to get a stick.   Well, it wasn't exactly a stick, it was a log, about twenty feet long and maybe 20 inches in circumference.   You could tell by the cheerful expression in her face that she was convinced that she could get it and drag it to the bank.  She would then proudly bring it to her masters who were watching from the bridge.   This dog tried everything she could to get that log:  she chewed chunks off of it, she tried to push it with her blond paws and her nose.  Each time she failed, she kept on going - undeterred by the obvious.    She did succeed in getting one side of the log onto the bank.    Her human parents watched in amusement and finally called her to come to them.   She obeyed immediately and trotted up the bank quite happy that she had gotten the log that far.   Those of us who were watching her caper unfold admired her enthusiasm applauded as she came up to the bridge soaking wet but very proud of what she had been able to accomplish.    She was a dog on a mission and the idea that it was impossible never entered her K-9 brain.   She just had fun and did the best she could with what she had.  That's all she really needed.    

I walked away from the bridge and that soggy retriever and thought about how powerful positive thinking is.   It can be so hard to have that sort of boundless optimism in our society.  We live in a world where snarky comments rule Twitter.  Reality shows reward the bad seeds who yell the loudest and push their own agenda while the people that come up with new and innovative ideas are either ignored or their ideas are stolen by the head bully.    Being positive and thinking outside of the box doesn't get you very far on shows like the Real Housewives or Survivor to succeed you have to be willing to stomp on anyone - a buddy or colleague to get ahead.   The worst thing about these sorts of shows is that they kill creativity and the importance of true collaboration.  In reality, these shows don't show reality.  In fact Mark Burnett, creator of Survivor and countless other shows refers to them as "unscripted dramas."   Those meltdowns aren't authentic  - they are staged because in the real world you'd be out on your ass for speaking to your boss, coworker, friend, or lover like that.  But  those train wreck moments get ratings and plenty of views on YouTube and for some it seems like a logical way to behave to get ahead.  Sure you can get hundreds of thousands of clicks but eventually it will catch up to you.  Unlike the skewed world of reality TV - it can ruin your reputation and even have your children taken away - just ask DaddyOFive - a YouTube channel that showed parents pranking their kids in the name of monetized views which eventually turned so vicious - child protective services had to be called in.  

I like to look at the ways a simple affirmation can change how you live.  In the movie Yes Man, Jim Carrey's mundane life is turned upside down when a self help guru challenges him to say "yes" to the opportunities that come his way.   He goes from being a heartbroken self-imposed shut-in to the fun guy that everyone wants to hang out with.   He saves a man from jumping off a ledge by using the guitar lessons he's started taking to sing Jumper by Third Eye Blind.  He gets his best friend's fiancee to like him when he throws them an engagement party.  He suddenly goes on spur of the moment trips on flights to anywhere.    He finds love because he breaks out of his comfort zone and meets a woman that on the surface would probably not be his type - a singer in an avant-garde band whose quirkiness inspires him to be a different man.   By saying yes to all sorts of possibilities, he turns into a self realized human being who is willing to meet life head on rather than running away from it. 

I use improvisation for team building and one of the first rules I give to my students is to never block offers - it's important to say "Yes, and..."   For instance if I start a scene with "Hey, it's great that we're finally married and on our honeymoon in Paris," and my scene partner comes back with "We're not married and we live in New Jersey!", the scene crashes and burns in the first few seconds before it can even get off the ground.  The best improvisers will accept the "offer" and build on it - for instance -  "Yes, and I'm so glad that my mother wanted to come with us!"  Now in those first few lines we're in agreement about our relationship, location and now that person has added another level of the meddling mother-in-law which is always comedy gold.   Not blocking offers is key to doing good improvisation but it's also vital in taking your life and business to the next level. 

One of my comedy goddesses Tina Fey explores this further in her book Bossy Pants.   "Now, obviously in real life you're not always going to agree with everything that everyone says.   But the Rule of Agreement reminds you to 'respect what your partner has created' and at least start from an open-minded place.  Start with YES and see where that takes you."   She goes on to explain that freeing your mind from negativity helps you find some new discoveries if you allow yourself to take that chance.  "There are no mistakes, only opportunities...And many of the world's greatest discoveries have been by accident.  I mean look at the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup or Botox."  

We've all worked with people who have the mentality of "No, we can't do that," "No, that's not in our budget," or  "That's the way we've always done it."   I don't take to that sort of thinking very well.   If you want to keep the status quo and not grow, don't bring new people in with new ideas.   Stay the way you are and stagnate and eventually it will do you in.   I once worked at an international organization where the program staff wanted to take trips overseas for any event they could.   It was eating holes in their budget but they insisted that the frequent trips were necessary to keep up communication with their clients even if it was not specifically to do a training.  In order to minimize the trips in between trainings,  I suggested doing teleconferences or Skype from the office in Atlanta so that the overseas clients would actually get direct contact much more often from our US staff.  The cost would be minimal and the program staff could spend more time at home with their families (albeit they might have to work in the middle of the night to catch clients in Beijing or Nairobi during their work day - but at least they could go home rather than spend 24 hours straight flying and at airports).   The Director of Finance was on-board with it, but the Program Director threw such a fit that the idea was scrapped and eventually the program itself had to be eliminated because the cost of even doing the twice a year face to face trainings overseas was prohibitive.  If the Program Director had been on board with Skype and teleconferencing, we probably would have saved her program and increased the number of people she could train.  But she was so hard wired to not accept anyone's ideas but hers that eventually the end result was losing her job.   

Recently, I was working with a business group and we worked on the Yes and... game.   The Yes and ... is a good group activity to get everyone to brainstorm and many advertising agencies use it.   We wanted to figure out how to get the arts out there to more people in the local business community.    One of the other facilitators, Sally Corbett, suggested we answer the question "How do we change the shape of the Dorito?"  My next suggestion was to make it flower shaped like a daisy.   Her next suggestion was to offer dips.   My next idea was to have the dips with plant based colors that were bright and fun.   She then suggested that you could break off the petals and dip them.   I added that if it was sold with a snack plate like a palette than you could paint on it and the proceeds could go towards arts organizations.  We did it with the group and they got the idea: that being open to other people's imaginations and building on it is good for business.   Think what the brainstorming session for the Chick-Fil-a cows must have been like:  "Yeah, we could have cows that encourage people to eat chicken because burgers are made from beef."  "Yes, and" another colleague would add, "they could be slightly mysterious, a little threatening - "  "Yes and" another staff member would chime in, "They could have really, really bad grammar and handwriting in their signs!"  Boom, one of the most successful advertising campaigns ever was born. 

So don't be afraid to say yes if someone invites you out to somewhere you've never been.   Give it a try, you might just like it.   There have been times that I literally went to places or events kicking and screaming and once I got over myself and relaxed, I was really glad that I went.  You can sit on the couch anytime with the pets or kids and watch a movie, but don't turn down an offer that you know you should take advantage of because it takes you out of your comfort zone and gets you to think outside of your cubical. One of my favorite lines from the movie We Bought a Zoo, is when Matt Damon says: "You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it."  Yes, and... I couldn't agree more.  

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Life's a Pitch and Then You Try

“You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.” – Yogi Berra

You’re sitting there in that business networking meeting and everyone has 30 seconds get up and pitch their business.  You were not prepared to do an elevator speech but hey, you’ve been in the industry a long time – you know your crap inside and out – it’s a freaking slam dunk.  As row after row of business people get up to give their speech you think how much everyone will love yours even though you have not prepared one – but you do well presenting off the cuff.  The person before you totally nails it and is done before the timer goes off but you’ve already sat through 20 presentations which you feel were not memorable.
You stand up with utter confidence and open your mouth just as the timer starts – you have a half minute to tell the group what you do.  You start strong with your name and business but then it seems like there’s so much to tell and only 30 seconds to tell it – what do you highlight?  Your heart starts to beat faster; your hands and armpits are sweating like a mother in labor.  Your breath starts to get shorter – you try to communicate how your business is a beacon of best practices but you stumble over the facts – you finally hit your high point when – PPPINNNGGG the alarm goes off and you sit down before you can even say your tag line or repeat your name.   A woman near-by offers you a condescending look and says – “It’s always hard the first time you do it.”  You resist the urge to say “That’s what she said!”  so you smile and say thank you.   You then realize you pretty much blew it in front of 50 potential customers.

Whether you’re doing a pitch for a new job or networking group or to get that
new board member or movie financed – the elevator pitch is the key to being able to summarize your skill set and convince that person that you know what you’re talking about.   It should be easy and yet saying what you do in a quick minute or less can be very daunting – which is why you need to be prepared.

I’ve been doing improvisation for over 25 years and that does give me the ability to be able to speak extemporaneously and thanks to theater games like Half Life – I can time out in my head a 2 minute scene, 1 minute scene, 30 seconds, 15 seconds down to 7 seconds. But most people struggle with getting their thoughts into a coherent message that is only a half a minute long.  Even more important is that most people know within 7 to 11 seconds of talking to you if they want to work with you – so those first impressions are very important.   

In the 1990’s – I used talk to businesses on behalf of United Way in order to encourage them to give.   Now, if I used the same pitch for Northern Trust Senior bankers that I used for their administrative assistants – I would have bored both audiences.  The bankers wanted to know the return on their investment (ROI) so I would offer facts about how investing in afterschool programs cut down on high school drop-out rates.  The administrative assistants were more interested in the personal stories of the clients we were helping and how the client’s families were positively affected by the services.  Basically, I was speaking on the same outcomes – just offering different viewpoints based on the audience that I was addressing. 

So how do you start  an elevator pitch?  I always like to begin with simmering it down to who I am, what I do, how I do it – it’s basically your mission statement.  Once you have that, write what you think is pertinent and then edit it down.  Think of those times when you wanted to share something profound on Twitter and found that it went way over 140 characters.  You either had to cut it down to make your point or you created a word meme which if too wordy would probably not be read by the split second Twitter or Instagram crowd. Keeping it simple and specific allows your audience to digest what you are saying easily because you are not trying to complicate things with more than one or two facts.

For instance, if you are trying to sell an employer on the need for benefits and
you have 30 seconds to try to get on their calendar – barfing up 10 facts is only going to confuse them and water down your message.  Starting with “Did you know that 43% of employees report that they are considering changing jobs in the next year but offering good benefits is one way to retain your staff?”  will peak their interest.  It will probably get you that appointment because it is simple, specific and addresses employee turnover which is a problem both large and small businesses face every day.

According to an article in Forbes Magazine by author Nancy Collamer, the first step is identifying your target audience and crafting what you say from there.  Your pitch is going to be different if you’re trying to sell yourself personally vs. selling your business or a program within the business.  A few key points she offered included:

·        Just a few bullet points.  Don’t give your entire life story – NOBODY has time for that.  Just a few key facts that will spark your listener’s interest.

·        Tailor your pitch to them – not you.  For instance, if you are trying to get a decision maker to decide to use your products – emphasize what will make their life easier by working with you and why it’s a great fit. 

·        Avoid industry jargon and acronyms.  You might assume that the person you are talking to you should know that jargon but different people learn to reference different things in different ways – many times it’s regional or generational.  Spell it out and don’t use slang.

·        Write it down and practice.  Writing it down will help you retain the facts as well as practicing in a mirror.  Also, practice role playing with someone can help build your confidence and give you much needed feedback.

Here are some examples of elevator speeches from the website Improvandy.com that can help guide you as you create your own pitch.   

Personal Elevator Speech for a Researcher

It’s probably easiest if I give you an example of my work. I was working with one of the big four consulting companies which was curious about how senior managers view risk management. My job was to recruit 75 C-Level executives from Fortune 1000 companies to speak with us about how they view risk management today, what they see as the emerging risks, and which services would be most valuable now and in the future. We successfully found and interviewed 75 executives despite a very tight timeline. My name is ___________ and businesses come to _____________ to better understand their markets, customers, and competitors.

Example Elevator Pitch for Sales

I was working with a homeowner who didn’t want to replace her water heater before selling her home, but knew that it could be a sticking point with a buyer. She purchased our home warranty which meant that both she and the buyer were protected, and I’m happy to report that the sale closed smoothly and on time.

Sample Elevator Speech for a TV News Anchor

I have a diverse background so let me tell you about the best project I worked on. I joined a show that had lackluster ratings and no social media presence. I used my experience producing and hosting national TV programs, along with my on-air anchoring and reporting skills to engage the audience before, during and after the show, increased the audience and ratings, and made a 10% improvement in the operating budget.  My name is Beatriz and I make TV news shows profitable.

Keep in mind that 75 words are about 30 seconds, 150 words is approximately one minute and three hundred words are about two minutes.   You should have a speech for each increment but you’ll probably use the 30 second to one minute pitch the most often.   

There was one networking group that I would go to from time to time over the years and one business owner had his pitch down pat and never varied it so the entire networking group could say it along with him.  It probably started out as a good branding exercise but after four years it was pretty stale and people just glazed over when he started to do his elevator speech – there was no energy in the room from the time he started to the time he finished.  Everyone could do his tag line more from rote rather than they genuinely liked the speech.   My suggestion would be keep the tag line but try a different
emphasis on the pitch.  If he had changed it week to week or even month to month– people would be listening rather than checking their smart phones while he was talking.

So the next time you go to your networking group, job interview, sales meeting, product demonstration – have a great pitch that you feel comfortable with and vary it week to week so you have four or five that you can pull out in a moment’s notice.   It will make you look polished, prepared and instead of condescension you’ll actually get congratulations and a few job offers.